Detectives · Reviews · Thoughts

Mysteries Stuck in a Loop

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is the latest example of how time-loops and detective stories are a compelling combination–I hope it becomes one of those “must read” novels for game designers and interactive storytellers soon. Evelyn Hardcastle brings together Agatha Christie and Groundhog Day drizzled with a bit of David Lynch. The protagonist of the novel relives the day a murder takes place in an English manor. He controls one person at a time, and the only way to break the loop is to solve the mystery; to do that, he has 8 days / lives to find the solution. If it sounds like a game, it’s because it is a wickedly complicated story puzzle, delightfully put together.

Coming from narrative games, I particularly enjoyed how the protagonist notices the friction with his hosts–what he wants to do may be at odds with their impulses, while the intelligence or insight of the person he’s controlling allows him to notice certain details or have specific realizations. This is not dissimilar to how the stats of a character in a role-playing game can determine what we can do and what we cannot. Although the author does not list videogames as one of the inspirations for the game (he mentions the TV show Quantum Leap in the Q&A at the end of the book), the storytelling takes advantage literacies that games and complex TV shows foster these days. Audiences can follow stories with multiple points of view, gaps that are steadily filled out (or not), so that as they read / watch / play they’re assembling the story puzzle.

A protagonist stuck in the same sequence of events until they get something right is a story structure recreates how we navigate digital storytelling, where the interactor explores the possibilities of a story until we get the “right” version, as Janet Murray breaks down in her analyses of Groundhog Day or Run Lola Run. The pervasiveness of videogames, which often involve trial and error, has turned this structure into a commonplace in other media. The manga All You Need is Kill, adapted to film as Edge of Tomorrow, both thrive on the tropes of combat videogames, so the journey of the main character depends on him remembering his mistakes and learning from them for the next loop, just like a videogame player would. The structure of the time loop has also been long embraced by videogames, starting with The Last Express (1997) and The Legend of Zelda: Marjora’s Mask (2000), neither of which have got the attention and recognition they deserve. Now there’s a whole slew of games recently released or coming up in the next few months: The Sexy Brutale (2017), Elsinore (2019), Outer Wilds (forthcoming), 12 Minutes (forthcoming). The metalevel of the knowledge of the player now becomes part of the game mechanics. And let’s not forget interactive fiction, where there’s already a sizable collection of examples in the last 20 years.

What interests me of the time loop as a narrative / game structure is how combines with mystery, which is what initially drove me to read Evelyn Hardcastle. In a mystery narrative, the initial goal of the detective is to reconstruct the story of the crime. One of the challenges to design a mystery videogame is figuring out how to let the computer evaluates whether the player got the solution right or not–something that is easier to do in non-digital games. Questionnaires are a common device, while letting the player fail can also be a productive approach–maybe players want to replay the game until they get it right, making the loop something that takes place at a meta-level, in the time and space of the player.

Time loop mysteries make the trial-and-error part and parcel of the world of the story / game. Thanks to Groundhog Day, many storytellers and game designers do not see the need to explain why that loop is happening–Evelyn Hardcastle does, in what seems to be a seed to tell further stories with a similar structure (I hope!). The time loop mystery structure is alluring because each loop allows the player / audience to get more information about what happened, and then use that information to solve the mystery or change the events. Some events take place simultaneously, so they require making choices and revisiting the story over and over in order to reveal each piece of the puzzle–where and when people are at each moment. While traditional media have used the loop as a way to structure the story and keep the audience intrigued until the end, the game player needs to actually solve the puzzle and use as many time loops as necessary to get to the end.

Bonus: If you’re into time loop mysteries and science fiction, you may want to listen to the Doctor Who audio story The Chimes of Midnight.

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Puzzles · Thoughts

Crosswords and Culture

Apart from being one of the most brilliant music composers and lyricists of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim is also a game geek and a puzzle lover. Makes sense that someone who marries music and lyrics for a living would also have a penchant for fitting words into grids. Back in the day, he also wrote an article outlining the difference between crosswords in the US and the UK–while American crosswords appeal to an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia, what he calls “British-style” crosswords thrive in being cryptic and challenge the puzzle-solver to understand what the clue is pointing to. He expresses a preference for the British type which should not be a surprise either–cryptic crosswords are more poetic, since they are basically posing riddles for each entry.

Sondheim’s article is a beautiful example of how game design and culture go hand in hand; it also becomes richer the moment that we start looking at crosswords in other languages. Although I can  play words games both in English and Spanish, I prefer crosswords in Spanish to the famous series of The New York Times. First, because the kind of encyclopedic knowledge needed to solve the NYT crossword requires being steeped in American culture and history in a way that is not accessible to a foreigner. Second, the phonotactics of Spanish allow many ways to make words cross in interesting ways. Opening some of the crossword magazines in Spain is a joy – some crosswords don’t tell you how many letters each word has (crucigrama blanco), some puzzles use words broken down in their syllables (crucigrama silábico), some have themes that many of the clues refer to.

My favorite type of crossword is the autodefinido (arroword in English) where the clues of each entry are written in the cell that separates each word. Some cells need to display two clues (one for a horizontal word, one for a vertical), so they need to be extremely brief, two or three words maximum. The clues in this type of crossword usually thrive on vocabulary knowledge, since most of them are synonyms, as well as cultural knowledge, most often geography, with toponyms and demonyms being some of the most common.

Autodefinidos are fast and easy – after all, crosswords were casual games before we invented such term. Although autodefinidos are based on linguistic and cultural knowledge, they become accessible relatively fast. Each crossword book publisher has a certain preference for specific knowledge domains and vocabulary – the first time a puzzle asks you for three-letter words in Spanish that mean “Turkish officer” or “River of Switzerland”, the reference seems ridiculously obscure. But as you continue solving puzzles, you keep coming across these riddles, and you learn that the answers are “AGA” and “AAR” respectively.  For the designers, these words become little stitches to hold the crossword together, and the puzzle solver learns to identify them over time. Each magazine publisher has a set of esoteric words that characterize them.

Autodefinidos also have a surprising variety – apart from having the same typology as regular crosswords (figure out where the blank cells are, divide the words in syllables, thematic riddles), they also do wonders with their layout – some of them have honeycomb layouts where words can be spelled in lines or around a cell. Others combine the crossword with the cryptogram, so the cells for each word in the crossword follow serpentine patterns, and when you find all the definitions, the square displays a literary quote. Everything falls into place and it’s beautiful.

Designing crosswords requires a level of craft computers can facilitate; in the end, it is up to the ingenuity of the designers, who often go uncredited, to create a challenge to one’s knowledge and wits. Some designers like challenging players with hair-pulling riddles, while others provide enough scaffolding so they can complete the puzzle. The NYT crosswords are all about proving the solver is “smart”, and has access to a certain knowledge and education that is highly situated in American culture – and, more often than not, New York City culture. If the puzzle-solver is stuck, they had to buy the newspaper of the following day to find the answer, though these days it’s a matter of having a subscription to the crosswords themselves. In contrast, collections of autodefinidos help the solver expand their vocabulary and trivia knowledge by repeating definitions from puzzle to puzzle, and magazine to magazine; the answers are in the same issue, so that knowledge is accessible immediately. Thus crosswords and their design also partake of different social conventions and levels of privilege.

 

Interactive Fiction · Resources

Parser-based Interactive Fiction: A Primer

I have been using game writing and narrative design for 10 years now; all this time, I’ve had students making parser-based interactive fiction games (a.k.a. text adventure games).  One of the biggest challenges is for students to understand how these games work – they’re not a mainstream commercial genre any more. But I keep them on my syllabus because this genre teaches the foundations of story-driven games very well: how to tell stories through objects, establishing interactions, basic dialogue systems and AI for characters. On top of this the rise of intelligent agents like Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana — all of these parse spoken input instead of written. Turns out that this old-fashioned type of games still have a lot to teach us.
So my main hurdle is how to get students to play parser-based interactive fiction. The nice thing about the format is that there is so much out there that there’s a game for everyone. In the past, I used the collection put together by my friends at the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction. It’s an exquisite selection, but there’s not a lot. My introduction to parser-based contemporary interactive fiction was a wide list of works, and I just picked and chose whatever sounded interesting. So I decided to make a larger, updated selection, so my students could find whatever they’re interested in. This list is not a canon – I’m not a fan of canons – but an invitation to find one’s own way into the world of parser-based interactive fiction.
What follows is a primer to understand the conventions of interactive fiction, alongside a collection of games to pick and choose from.

How to play Interactive Fiction

Interactive fiction (IF from now on) starts with text and then invites you to type what you want to do. The commands follow specific conventions, so you have to learn those first. Start by having a look at this quick cheatsheet. If you need more details, this old guide is still very handy.
There’s several ways in which you can play IF. You can do it on your browser directly – most of the links below include a link to a browser version of the game. Games can be as short as 30 seconds to more than an hour. For longer games, you may want to play them on your computer or even your phone to be able to save your game. In order to do that, you need to run an interactive fiction interpreter, which is a program that loads the game and plays it on the platform of your choice. The most reliable interpreter for modern platforms is Andrew Plotkin’s Lectrote.
One nice thing about IF is that If you want to play games on your phone or tablet while huddling under a blanket, you can! There’s interpreters for Android (Hunky Punk,
Some of the games require to draw a map if you want to know where you are. So be sure to have pen and paper at hand to take notes.

The Interactive Fiction Collection

These are some recommended games, grouped in different categories to fit a variety of interests. You don’t need to play them all, though I’d start with the ones on top of the list and then explore the rest of the list based on your interests. Enjoy!
Beginners
Experimental

It’s better to play these once one’s familiar with IF.

Fractured Fairytales

These are Emily Short’s games based on traditional fairytales.

Lovecraft

For some reason, all of the horror games that ended up in this collection are based / inspired by Lovecraft.

Science Fiction / Fantasy
Mystery
Puzzle-lite
Wordplay
Weird and Wonderful

(a.k.a. Andrew Plotkin does his thing)

choice design · Interactive Fiction · Narrative Design · Resources

Taxonomy of Narrative Choices

A few years ago, I realized that in order to teach narrative choice design I needed a classification of types of choices. Creating games in the style of choose-your-own adventure, in the style of Choice of Games, Inkle Studios, Failbetter Games, the sadly defunct Telltale Games, or for interactive film, requires having a vocabulary that refers to the different ways in which choices can be expressive.

I came up with my own taxonomy, which I have been teaching in different iterations over the years. Inspired by works like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, I finally realized it’d be best to illustrate the taxonomy interactively, on top of discussing examples in the class. You can read/play the taxonomy on my itch.io page.

This taxonomy is part of a larger lecture, which is the introduction to narrative choice design in my classes. While games may be a series of interesting choices, they also become much more complicated when we make those decisions be part of a longer narrative. One of the reasons why making choices can be compelling is that players can see the consequences of their decisions—that is the foundation of agency, one of the pleasures of digital media as defined by Janet Murray. We like feeling that the game is listening to us, that we are in control of our actions in the game, that our choices matter.

Challenging agency, however, also has a lot of expressive possibilities. First of all, players can have the illusion of agency without having to change the content of the game. If you’ve played any of the choice-based Telltale games, you have probably seen the caption “So-and-so will remember that” after making a decision. Most of the time, it turns out they won’t—but the player can believe that their action had an effect on someone. It is a way to use the player’s perception and imagination in order to fill the gaps and not having to expand on the content.

Frustrating the player, taking away agency, can also be expressive. Games have the annoying tendency to become “entitlement simulators” ; game designers should challenge players to make difficult, painful decisions, have them realize that the world may not revolve around them, and that there may be problems that are beyond their control. Untethered agency can be problematic in dating sims, for example—boiling down intimate relationships to choosing the right things to say oversimplifies how humans connect with each other. Representing love as having agency over a person, or being able to “win” them by achieving a score, can reinforce certain unhealthy ideas about relationships, and push players down the brink of toxicity

The taxonomy I propose is therefore a breakdown of the different ways in which undermining agency can be expressive, and can help players think about what they do. (Maybe.)

combinatorics explosion.001

Using different types of choices is also a healthy way to keep projects under scope. As the image shows, if for every decision the player makes the story bifurcates, the content multiplies very fast. In order to write a choose-your-own-adventure story where each version is only four pages long, and only gives two choices to the player on each page, we  would have to write fifteen (15) pages. It is not very efficient and the combinatorial explosion goes out of control very fast. There are also models of different structures that both provide players with interesting choices without having to generate inordinate amounts of content—Sam Kabo Ashwell provides one of my favourite classifications on his blog.

Last but not least, a lot of what went into the taxonomy and my original lecture comes from the lessons I learned from working  in my classes with ChoiceScript by Choice of games (check out their game design blog posts if you’re interested in the topic).

 

Detectives · Papers · Resources

Game Narrative Through the Detective Lens

At this year’s DiGRA conference, I gave an overview of my work of the last few years on detective stories and games.

Here’s the abstract:

The paper examines detective games as a corpus to understand the relationship between gameplay and storytelling in games. Detective fiction is a narrative genre that is already playful by teasing the reader to figure out the solution to the mystery before they get to the end. By exploring the narrative nature of detective games, how detective stories have been turned into games (digital and non-digital), and how genre expectations and conventions shape gameplay, we can gain a better understanding of the integration between gameplay and narrative. Contradictory as it may sound, this paper uses inductive methods to infer general approaches to game narrative by concentrating on a specific corpus of stories and games. It is not within the scope of this paper to cover all aspects of game narrative, nor go into all the implications deriving from the comparison. Rather, this paper will be limited exploring two key aspects to demonstrate the kinds of insight that we can gain through this method.

The slides of the presentation, including references to my sources and my own work, are here: DiGRA 2018 – Game Narrative through the Detective Lens

Adventure Games · Interactive Fiction · Resources

Tools to make narrative games

Since I have to keep up with a variety of tools for narrative games and interactive narrative, I have decided to share the list of resources that I keep. This post will be a living document, so I will update as I come across new tools.
If you have any suggestions for resources that should be included, please contact me.

Tools

Twine 1+2

Twine is one of the most popular tools to write hypertext fiction; it creates HTML files that can are easy to share online. It is very accessible and has a large of community and plenty of resources and tutorials. Very recommendable for beginners; knowing how to use CSS styles and basic programming can also go a long way.

ChoiceScript

A programming language developed by Choice of Games to create multiple-choice games, as a Choose Your Own Adventure electronic book. Don’t feel intimidated by it being a programming language: it’s based on javascript, and it’s very easy to use and get started, as long as you keep your indentations in the text consistent.

Inform 7

One of the most veteran tools for making narrative games, in this case parser-based text games (the kind where the player talks to the computer to make games). Inform 7 uses a language that uses sentences in English, which may take some time to get used to. It is also a design suite that packs the editor, compiler and interpreter all in one. I recommend it as a starting point to anyone who wants to create narrative games, because it teaches how to think stories as simulated worlds rather than branching plots. A very strong community of developers, as well as a variety of tutorials and resources makes this another good starting tool for newcomers.

Texture

An interactive fiction authoring tool online, that presents itself as an option between Twine and Inform. The interaction consists of drag-and-drop words on top of other words, rather than typing or choosing a hyperlink, which makes the results easily playable on a browser. It also allows integrating images into your game; the development focuses on writing, and provides easy menus to create conditional text – it is easy to use if you don’t feel comfortable programming. It’s all online, so your work is saved in your cache; the tool allows you to have a user account so that your work in saved on a server. A good fit for short games for mobile platforms.

Texture Home Page

Fungus

For those of you familiar with Unity (whose personal use version is free, although it’s still a proprietary tool) , it’s a free plug-in to make visual novels, although it can be easily repurposed to include branching dialogue into any Unity game.

Ink and Inky

Ink is the scripting language developed by Inkle Studios to write choice-based games, whereas Inky is the editor to create the text. It is a mark-up language, not very dissimilar from Choicescript above, although in order to release it as a game it needs Unity. So you still need to know how to use Unity in order to make a game. It’s open source.

Yarn – Dialogue Editor for Unity

A dialogue editor created as a tool for Night in the Woods as well as its companion games, the texts generated with it have to be exported to Unity. The developers acknowledge they are inspired by the Twine interface, and the program does import Twine files. Requires some programming chops to set up and connect to Unity.

Chatmapper

A proprietary standalone dialogue mapping editor. The trial version can be used to prototype conversation trees. The paid version allows creating dialogue simulations including visual and audio assets, provides visualization tools of different branching, and even generates scripts for voice actors, which can also facilitate localization. Uses LUA as a programming language, and exports to a variety of formats that can then be plugged into your engine of choice (XML, JSON, RTF, PDF, JPEG, Excel). May be best for larger projects with a lot of dialogue and audiovisuals – and also developers who have an actual budget.

Ren’Py

A visual novel engine that has been around since 2004, so that there is a large community of support as well as tutorials. Uses Python, one of the most accessible programming languages, it is also open source. One of its most attractive features is that it creates games that run both on desktop computers as well as mobile.

Adventure Game Studio (AGS)

A tool to make point-and-click adventure games. Initially created to make games in the style of the Sierra adventure games (e.g. King’s Quest), it expanded to other formats and allows developers to create their own style of adventure games. A classic tool that is now open source, counts with a good community and extensive resources developed over 20 years of its existence. On the downside, it is a Windows-only program, and requires special wrappers in order to release games for other program.

Visionaire

A proprietary tool to make point-and-click adventure games, which means that the support mainly comes from the company rather than a community. There is a free demo version that allows making games with up to 10 rooms; the indie version for a single user is not too expensive. It uses LUA as a programming language; the documentation is up to date if you speak German, but it is a bit behind in its English version.

RPG Maker

A proprietary tool to make Japanese-style role-playing games; it is pretty powerful and also has an extensive community because it has been around for a long time. The games use tile-based art, which facilitates both making visual assets as well as finding pre-made ones. It can also be used to make adventure games.

Adventure Creator for Unity

Another plug-in for Unity, also proprietary. It is a toolkit to make both 2D and 3D point-and-click adventure games. It uses visual scripting, which is a bit more accessible to non-programmers, and comes with a collection of pre-set templates to create inventories, branching dialogue, and object interactions. There is a growing community of developers.

articy:draft3

A proprietary tool that can be customized for a variety of engines. Probably best tailored for large games, it allows mapping your story and its logics, keeping databases of objects, imports screenplay files from Final Draft, and connects directly to Unity. The developer also offers cloud services to allow for collaborative writing for games. It’s a tool that is becoming popular in the professional scene, though probably the most expensive all of the proprietary tools listed here so far.
The Gamebook Authoring Tool
Another proprietary tool, it is designed to make Choose-Your-Own-Adventure games, but also works to write books.

Experimental tools
I’ve been receiving links to additional tools – some of them are experimental, some of them are still in the works. I’m sharing them here for you to try – and please report back if there’s one you particularly like!

Update 6 January 2018: Added articy:draft and Texture (Thanks to Evan Skolnick and Sarah Schoemann for the pointers)

Update 25 January 2018: Started section on experimental tools and included a couple of links that I received over email. Thanks to Jeff and Daniel for sending me their engines!

Thoughts

Tea and a videogame

Working at coffeeshocup-mug-tea-bokeh-56861ps is a relatively new thing for me. I see coffee shops as social spaces, where I meet people and have some tea and maybe a snack. (I’m not quite a coffee person.) But since my schedule has got impossibly busy over the years, I’ve learned to find a nook to work on focused tasks helps be more efficient and a bit less stressed.

So I was working at the tea shop the other day, and a woman sat next to me with her tea and The New York Times. And it struck me – some people get some alone leisure time by going out and finding a place to solve crosswords.  Being a videogame person, I had to ask on Twitter, as onedoes, whether other people went to play videogames to the coffeeshop.

I received a fair amount of responses, though nothing to call them strong evidence. There were story-driven games like Firewatch, Kentucky Route Zero, 80 Days; one person played Zelda: Breath of the

 Wild. There were casual games like Clash Royale or Plants vs. Zombies, including time-management games like Diner Dash. There was also room for sophisticated puzzle games like Beglitched. Farming simulation games such as Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, get several mentions. One person mentions turn-based strategy games, which seems to fit the environment. All these games are single-player, mostly on mobile (I’ll count the Nintendo Switch as such) but some were played on a laptop.

The responses in the thread confirmed my suspicion that the kinds of games that one would play in the coffee shop are similar to bringing a book, a crossword, or any similar kind of puzzle (sudoku, nonograms). The idea is to abscond to spend some time alone with a story, or with a challenge that may requires a certain amount of focus — let’s say that Beglitched can be the videogame equivalent of the Saturday crossword of the New York times. Being offline also seems important. I don’t quite see people playing first-person shooters or MOBAs at the coffee shop – although I’m sure some people do – just because it’s very easy to get passionate and loud while you’re fighting, and you need a reliable connection to play online.

There are other social spaces to play other genres – there are board game cafes, there used to be cybercafes in the 90s with LANs to play first-person shooters. Perhaps there’s a business model for a coffee shop that organizesmulti-player events and competitions. But when it comes to going to a coffee shop, for you and your game, stories, puzzles, and turn-base strategy go well with a cuppa. Or coffee.